US-Japan-India Trilateral Relations: Opportunities and Challenges

Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Japan in November and made clear his desire to make relations with Japan, already quite strong, a key priority for Delhi in the coming years. Indeed, Modi and Prime Minister Abe Shinzo labeled the bilateral relationship a “special strategic and global partnership.” But while bilateral relations are progressing, Abe and Modi also appear keen on nurturing an emerging trilateral relationship with the United States. In a joint statement released during Abe’s trip to India in December 2015, the two sides agreed on “the need to leverage their excellent bilateral relations to promote trilateral dialogues and cooperation with major partners in the region.”1

Trilateral Relations in Context

Trilateral cooperation with the United States has been the main vehicle for Japan and India (although there is also a trilateral dialogue between Japan, India, and Australia). This long underperforming trilateral joins the United States with the two largest and most influential democracies in the Indo-Pacific. It also dovetails perfectly with the Obama administration’s commitment to “rebalance” to Asia with an emphasis on encouraging its allies and key partners to share more of the load. In September 2015, on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, the three sides held the inaugural US-Japan-India Trilateral Dialogue at the foreign minister level. During that meeting, the parties emphasized the “growing convergence of their respective countries’ interests in the Indo-Pacific region” and “underscored the importance of international law and peaceful settlement of disputes; freedom of navigation and over flight; and unimpeded lawful commerce, including in the South China Sea.”2

On the security side, trilateral relations have seen a boost with India’s decision in 2015 to agree to Japan’s inclusion as a permanent participant in its annual Malabar naval exercises with the United States.3 Japan had previously participated in the Malabar exercises—which provide an invaluable opportunity for exchanges and operational synergies for the three navies—for several years, but it was not formally included in the exercise until 2015. The decision to expand the Malabar exercises is a significant turning point not just for India’s role in the region, but also towards the development of the trilateral US-Japan-India relationship.

The trilateral relationship has the potential to serve as a regional bulwark that could head off China’s ambitions to control the maritime domain in East Asia. This is true especially as China continues to increase its involvement in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), with development and infrastructure projects in several peripheral states to Delhi,4 such as Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and, of course, Pakistan. For example, China has built sea ports, including one in Sri Lanka, and has finalized the deal to provide submarines to the Bangladeshi Navy. Elsewhere in the region, China has funded a massive deep-sea port in Pakistan at Gwadar, as well as a dry port in Nepal.

Delhi’s concerns regarding Beijing’s intentions in the region could—theoretically—push its alignment closer to the US-Japan alliance. The partnership between Washington, Tokyo, and Delhi is also significant because it helps to connect US alliances and partnerships in East Asia with a South Asian anchor in India. Under the leadership of the United States, Japan, and India, there could be a more forceful and principled protection of the rules-based order in the region and the maintenance of international law in the maritime domain.

Despite these positive drivers and shared interests, the trilateral relationship between Washington, Tokyo, and Delhi is still nascent and faces a number of challenges. Perhaps, the most existential difficulty for the growth of the partnership is Delhi’s allergy to alliances or “quasi-alliances” and its concern that stronger and more overt alignment with Japan and the United States would incur more costs than benefits. Specifically, India remains wary of taking steps that would hamper its relationship with China. Although Delhi is uncomfortable with China’s assertive moves in the maritime domain—such as it actions to change the status quo via force in the East and South China seas—, there has not yet been enough strategic rationale to bring India more into the fold of the US-Japan camp in openly and actively opposing Beijing’s moves.

Similarly, Japan and the United States—despite their concerns about Beijing’s regional behavior—are cautious about constructing networks in the region that are solely purposed, or perceived, to contain China. The containment of China would be counterproductive to the interests of all three nations—which rely on positive relations with Beijing to ensure shared prosperity and stability in the Asia Pacific. Indeed, as Secretary of Defense Ash Carter has indicated: “The United States welcomes the emergence of a peaceful, stable, and prosperous China that plays a responsible role in and contributes to the region’s security network…The United States remains committed to working with China to ensure a principled future for the region.”5

Tokyo also relies on stable relations with Beijing, which remains one of its top trading partners despite politics being on ice since tensions over the Senkaku Islands boiled over in 2012. The trading relationship with Beijing is less ascendant than before as Japan seeks out cheaper production sites and, potentially, more dynamic markets in Southeast Asia and India, but Tokyo still relies on China as a large hub of its supply chain. Moreover, the Abe administration is pragmatic about its need to work with China to defuse tensions in the East China Sea and work towards establishing effective mechanisms to mitigate unintended clashes in the disputed waters, through joint pledges to implement hotlines, common radio frequencies, and other measures. However, despite commitments to manage tensions in the East China Sea, none of these confidence-building mechanisms have yet been implemented.6

The trilateral relationship also continues to be hampered by the lack of concrete operational and political exchange. The commencement of high-level political dialogue—as marked by the foreign ministers meeting in 2015—is a positive sign, but the trilateral still lacks the political weight and commitment of the US-Japan-Australia or US-Japan-South Korea groupings, which have regular minister-level meetings and have also had summits held at the head-of-state level. In other words, the trilateral remains at a “testing stage” and has not yet reached maturity or strategic embrace from all sides.

Another final—but important challenge—for the trilateral relationship will be the attention paid to such trilateral vehicles in the post-Obama era. With last month’s surprising election of Donald Trump, Washington’s foreign policy in the region and the future of Obama’s “rebalance” policy remains unclear. While it is unlikely that the Trump administration will look to comprehensively roll back US engagement in the region, there are valid concerns among US allies and partners in the region—including Japan and India—on the future direction of Washington’s policy. Trump may look to have US allies and partners take more leadership in driving these mechanisms rather than relying on the United States as the facilitator.

Strategic Alignment Between Delhi and Tokyo

The “Indo-Pacific” is a term that is being increasingly used by academics and journalists as a replacement for “Asia Pacific.” Of course, the two refer to separate regions depending on usage—but the crucial difference is that the former puts emphasis on the inclusion of India and South Asia as inherently connected to the rest of East Asia. While the two have been integrated for centuries, the rapidly changing geopolitical scene focused on China’s emergence has further melded the East with the South.

The concept of the Indo-Pacific—in both economic and security terms—is one that is gaining support in Japan, as evidenced by Tokyo’s push to rapidly step up its engagement with Delhi. Abe’s outreach to India represents another key component of his administration’s strategy to enhance ties with partners in the Indo-Pacific region that also remain wary of China’s rise. Indeed, since taking office Abe focused on ASEAN and visited all ten of the Southeast Asian countries, including traditional allies of Beijing such as Laos, Cambodia, and Burma. Abe also toured South Asian states on India’s periphery including Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.

Abe and Modi have long shared a warm relationship, dating back to the days of Abe’s first tenure as prime minister in 2006-2007 where he engaged with Modi, who was then chief minister of Gujarat province. At the time, Abe was impressed with the relative ease of doing business in Gujarat as compared to other regions of India and grew fond of Modi’s leadership. In 2007, Abe spoke of a “confluence of the two seas” during his speech to the Indian Parliament. Abe stressed that this necessitated an alignment between Japan and India: “The Pacific and the Indian Oceans are now bringing about a dynamic coupling as seas of freedom and of prosperity. A ‘broader Asia’ that broke away geographical boundaries is now beginning to take on a distinct form. Our two countries have the ability—and the responsibility—to ensure that it broadens yet further and to nurture and enrich these seas to become seas of clearest transparence.”7

Nearly a decade later, the two have been reunited, as the leaders of two of Asia’s largest and most prosperous democracies. India has long been courted by Abe, which sees a partnership with Delhi as both a natural hedge against Beijing and also a complementary hedge against potential risks of Washington’s retrenchment or gradual drawdown in East Asia. (He may have additional aims in search of a more autonomous Asian policy and supporter in the quest for a different view of history in Asia from Washington’s. After all, the Indian judge, whose home Abe visited as prime minister, voted against the Tokyo Tribunal findings.) As Abe noted in the Project Syndicate just before his election in December 2012, “I envisage a strategy whereby Australia, India, Japan, and the US state of Hawaii form a diamond to safeguard the maritime commons stretching from the Indian Ocean region to the western Pacific. I am prepared to invest, to the greatest possible extent, Japan’s capabilities in this security diamond.”8 This sentiment built upon Abe’s intentions during his first administration when Foreign Minister Aso Taro called for an “arc of freedom and prosperity” that transcended the Pacific Ocean and connected Japan to India and South Asia.9

The natural geopolitical and historical synergies between Japan and India have only been further heightened by the mutually affectionate relationship between Abe and Modi. Shortly after Modi was elected, Abe invited him to Japan in August 2014 and arranged for a state visit, including a stay in the Imperial State Guest House in Kyoto—the first such offer to an Indian leader.10 This demonstrated the importance Tokyo attached to its ties with Delhi. Abe reciprocated the kindness shown by Modi’s predecessor, Manmonhan Singh, who invited Abe to be the official state guest for one of India’s Republic Day ceremonies,11 marking the first time for a Japanese prime minister to attend the ceremony, which is considered a symbolic gesture given only to India’s closest partners.

During Modi’s visit to Japan this fall, the two sides further bolstered their bilateral relationship with the finalization of a civil nuclear pact with Japan, which allows Tokyo to export nuclear technology to India.12 The deal has long been coveted by Delhi, which hoped to secure access to Japan’s sophisticated technology and material to help develop its growing civil nuclear energy sector. The agreement, however, has taken years of difficult negotiations due to India’s status as a non-nuclear weapons state according to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Japan has been conflicted by its desire to seize lucrative economic opportunities in nuclear trade, in the face of its enshrined principles and commitments to mitigate nuclear proliferation. Japan and India have also made slow—but steady—progress towards Tokyo’s first large defense sale since changes to its laws have allowed the relaxation of arms exports. Specifically, Japan is close to agreeing to provide India with the sophisticated US-2 amphibian aircraft. The two sides have ratified key agreements on military information sharing and defense technology acquisition.13

Japan and India have also boosted their bilateral relationship through a series of economic deals that laid the foundation of their ties. Tokyo has pledged billions toward developing the infrastructure for the mega-infrastructure project to connect Mumbai and Ahmedabad by high speed rail. Construction is slated to commence in 2018, with the system ideally operable five years later.14 The two sides are also engaged in other infrastructure projects including the development of key industrial corridors between Delhi and Mumbai and Chennai and Bengaluru.

The importance of the bilateral relationship is crucial to the success of its interplay with the United States. As the two grow closer strategically, there will also be a greater push—especially from Tokyo—to align more closely with the United States. Moreover, while the Tokyo-Delhi relationship still has many limitations—it also carries less historical and diplomatic baggage compared to the complex relationship between the United States and India. In this sense, Abe—and future Japanese leaders—have the potential to play a role as interlocutor or facilitator for expanding trilateral ties.

The Abe 2.0 administration’s India policy has worked to follow through with these ideas from his first tenure. The momentum is of course bolstered by the long personal relationship between Abe and Modi. This relationship is being watched carefully by Beijing, which just recently hosted Modi in China. Beijing sees Abe’s push in India, along with his broader regional strategy in South and Southeast Asia, as a larger encirclement ploy. Further concerning Beijing is talk of resuscitating a strategic dialogue between the United States, Japan, Australia, and India.

The quadrilateral idea, however, remains a distant goal as institutionalizing this vision in a tangible way has been challenging. Despite its considerable wariness of Beijing’s hegemonic intentions in Asia, India is loath to overtly deviate from its traditional strategy of non-alignment. Moreover, previous attempts to create a meaningful quadrilateral dialogue between Australia, Japan, the United States, and India have failed due a lack of consensus on what Delhi’s inclusion would represent to Beijing. Currently, there is a trilateral strategic dialogue of Tokyo, Washington, and Canberra that appears to be sharpening its focus on security issues and not so subtly pointing at China’s attempts to coercively attempt to change the status quo around the Senkaku Islands. Yet, while a quadrilateral partnership may not be realistic, there is growing enhancement of Japan-India security ties. By building stronger economic and defense ties, the New Delhi-Tokyo partnership is demonstrating the potential for significant cooperation between two key strategic players in Asia. The next step will be to ensure that the two sides live up to their commitments and navigate their way to reach a common strategic vision.

The Rebalance and Networked Security

From a foreign policy viewpoint in Asia, Obama’s legacy is yet to be determined, as the trajectory and long-term success of his signature “rebalance” to the Asia Pacific still needs to undergo scrutiny as the region continues to evolve. Under his tenure, the United States has invested considerable time and capital in the nourishment of security networks involving its allies and key partners in the region. As Ash Carter has recently written in Foreign Affairs, “The principled security network is not developing in response to any particular country. Rather, it demonstrates that the region wants cooperation, not coercion, and a continuation of, not an end to, decades of peace and progress. More important, since this network is not closed, nations can more easily work together.”15

One of the central drivers behind Obama’s “rebalance” was the more tangible integration of core US interests—in economic and security terms—with those of US allies and emerging partners in the region. The idea was to look at relations beyond the crude historical lens of the “hub and spokes” model—which approached Washington’s engagement in the region through a series of seemingly disconnected bilateral alliances and partnerships. In effect, the real vision was the creation of a lasting blueprint—or strategy—for US engagement in Asia as a whole, rather than its relations with individual countries.

The most obvious and long-standing examples of this networked cooperation have been on display through the US-Japan-South Korea and the US-Japan-Australia trilateral mechanisms. The grouping of Washington, Tokyo, and Seoul is, perhaps, the most critical trilateral from a near-term strategic lens—as provocations continue to pile up from a volatile and aggressive regime in Pyongyang. Unfortunately, the trilateral has also been plagued by persistent historical tensions between Japan and South Korea, which often have impacted the effectiveness of joint cooperation. The US-Japan-Australia network—formalized through a Trilateral Strategic Dialogue—meanwhile has been the smoothest in terms of a desire to press forward on shared interests in the region—namely the freedom of navigation and adherence to international law in the maritime domain.

By contrast, the US-Japan-India relationship has a lower profile, and its progress has been less notable to this point. Despite this, there is a growing belief in Washington that India remains a key ingredient to its principled security network approach. And, while there remains considerable room for improvement in the US-India security relationship, Delhi remains one of the most significant defense partners for Washington with multiple joint exercises and exchanges. In a sense, the US-India relationship already has many of the hallmarks of a traditional alliance—minus the security guarantees—but lacks political commitment.

The limitations of the US-India defense relationship, however, have also provided opportunities and benefits. For example, Delhi avoids the perception that it has joined Washington in a “quasi-alliance” and can take steps—largely still in line with US interests—through other vehicles. The US-Japan-India trilateral is one such avenue. But, there are also mechanisms that do not directly involve the United States, such as the India-Japan-Australia trilateral dialogue, which brings together Delhi with the two most important US allies in the region. India is also working independently, through bilateral channels, to shore up relationships with countries in Southeast Asia and help develop their maritime domain awareness capacities. For example, Delhi is working with Vietnam to help enhance its naval and coast guard capabilities as it attempts to hold its ground in the South China Sea.

In addition to these regional drivers, cooperation with India—and third parties more generally—has been given a more sanctioned standing for the United States and Japan through explicit reference to the importance of working with other partners—identified in the revised US-Japan defense guidelines announced in April 2015. Specifically, the inclusion is written under the chapter labeled Cooperation for Regional and Global Peace and Security: “The two governments (US and Japan) will promote and improve trilateral and multilateral security and defense cooperation. In particular, the two governments will reinforce efforts and seek additional opportunities to cooperate with regional and other partners, as well as international organizations.”

Cooperation with India was also prioritized in Japan’s first-ever National Security Strategy (NSS) released in 2013, which noted: “India is becoming increasingly influential, due to what is projected to become the world’s largest population, and to high economic growth and potential. India is also geopolitically important for Japan, as it is positioned in the center of sea-lanes of communication. Japan will strengthen bilateral relations in a broad range of areas, including maritime security, based on the bilateral Strategic and Global Partnership.”16

India is also an important member of the evolving regional security architecture with participation in all of the key regional bodies, including: the East Asia Summit (EAS), the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Regional Forum (ARF), the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting Plus, and the Shangri-La Dialogue. Through these mechanisms, Delhi can also provide an influential and regional voice to shared principles—such as the rule of law and freedom of navigation in the maritime domain.

Delhi and WashingtonPost-Obama Uncertainty

The trajectory of the US-India relationship, like many of Washington’s foreign dealings, remains uncertain following Trump’s election earlier this year. Modi phoned Trump shortly after his election victory and noted that he looked “forward to taking the relationship to new strategic heights.”17 Indeed, despite some hiccups, India and US strategic relations progressed under Obama’s watch, who was extended the same courtesy as Abe when invited to be the special state guest for India’s Republic Day ceremonies in 2015—the first such offer to a US leader. During that time, Obama and Modi framed the US-India relationship as a “natural and global partnership” and struck numerous deals on investments, defense, and climate change issues.18

But, while Trump’s approach to Delhi seems fairly standard and in-line with previous administrations, his approach to Pakistan—India’s arch geostrategic rival—raised diplomatic eyebrows in Delhi. According to an official statement from Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Trump was exceptionally warm during the call (initiated by Islamabad to congratulate Trump). “President Trump said Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif you have a very good reputation. You are a terrific guy. You are doing amazing work, which is visible in every way. I am looking forward to see you soon. As I am talking to you Prime Minister, I feel I am talking to a person I have known for long. Your country is amazing with tremendous opportunities. Pakistanis are one of the most intelligent people. I am ready and willing to play any role that you want me to play to address and find solutions to the outstanding problems. It will be an honor and I will personally do it. Feel free to call me any time even before 20th January that is before I assume my office.” Trump then fanned the flames by indicating that, upon invitation by Sharif, “he would love to come to a fantastic country, fantastic place of fantastic people.”19

Delhi has thus far been measured in its official response to Trump’s engagement with Islamabad—but clearly is seething behind the scenes. As David Gergen recently noted: “A president wouldn’t gush over a foreign leader the way that Donald Trump did. He wouldn’t volunteer to do all these things. Our relationship with Pakistan is one of the most sensitive and difficult relationships in the world. It’s an extremely important relationship. You’d carefully think through any call like that, you’d make your two or three points, [then] over and out. Especially don’t leave them in a position where they could put out something so gushing that it hurts your relationship with India." But while India is right to be perplexed, it might be calculating that the incident is more of an example of Trump’s diplomatic naivete rather than any sinister evidence of a policy shift.20 India’s Ministry of External Affairs responded in an informative—rather than angry—manner, “We look forward to the President-elect helping Pakistan address the most outstanding of its outstanding issues—terrorism.”21


There remains a great deal of uncertainty on what a Trump administration will mean for Washington’s Asia policy. But there should not be fear of US retrenchment or abandonment, which would be directly counter to US commercial and security interests—a chord that strikes with president-elect Trump. The United States, Japan, and India benefit in prosperity and security terms from stability in the Indo-Pacific, and, therefore, also have a joint responsibility to safeguard this order. It is unlikely that a Trump administration, despite its crude rhetoric on the value of alliances, will veer from this vision.

How should the US-Japan-India relationship evolve? The Malabar exercises are, for the time being, a trilateral mechanism. Despite this, there is a logical push for this eventually to include Australia as part of a quadrilateral that would combine Washington’s two most important regional allies with Asia’s largest democracy. These considerations aside, previous attempts to create a meaningful quadrilateral dialogue between Australia, Japan, the United States, and India have failed due to a lack of consensus on what Delhi’s inclusion would represent to Beijing. The Tokyo, Washington, and Canberra trilateral opposes China’s attempts to coercively attempt to change the status quo in the East and South China seas in ways too pronounced to satisfy Delhi’s caution.

For the time being, Washington, Tokyo, and Delhi should maintain their focus on a trilateral relationship and improved defense and security synergies through the Malabar exercises. The three sides could also look at adopting a formal trilateral strategic dialogue, mirroring the current US-Japan-Australia example. A new trilateral would institutionalize cooperation and bring high-level buy-in through annual exchanges at the foreign and defense minister level. Incremental elevation of this trilateral relationship will allow all sides to evaluate and risk-assess before making any decision to merge with the US-Japan-Australia dialogue in order to form a substantive quadrilateral.

In addition to exploring synergies with existing trilaterals involving Australia, the United States, Japan, and India should actively look at ways of involving China in regional security discussions and activities. This is especially true with the change of administration in the United States and the uncertainty that has followed. Despite China being wary of a successor administration led by Hillary Clinton—widely thought of as a “China hawk” in Beijing—, there is much less certainty on the future of US-China relations under the incoming Trump administration. This uncertainty could lead to volatility and anxiety in Beijing, and while the United States and its partners must protect their principles and regional stability, they should also re-energize efforts to engage Beijing in this endeavor.

The US-Japan-India trilateral should also look at other areas in which to cooperate that can complement their engagement in the Malabar exercises. For example, it would be valuable for the three to enhance their cooperation on intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) in the IOR and potentially look to sign a trilateral General Security of Military Information Sharing Agreement (GSOMIA). The three sides could also look to improve logistical coordination support through Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreements (ACSA). Other areas should also be looked at, such as regularized operational and bureaucratic exchanges to help build confidence and normalize the trilateral relationship.

Finally, the US-Japan-India trilateral should look at ways to transcend traditional security cooperation, as underscored in the Malabar exercises. Engagement in other areas, such as working jointly on counter-piracy and combatting maritime crime would help diversify the trilateral partnership. Washington, Delhi, and Tokyo should also look to ramp up their coordination of activities related to humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) and also search and rescue (SAR) exercises. This cooperation could have a tangible value, considering the propensity for natural disasters in the region and the need for rapid, effective, and multilateral responses.

1. Ministry of External Affairs of the Government of India, “Joint Statement on India and Japan Vision 2025: Special Strategic and Global Partnership Working Together for Peace and Prosperity of the Indo-Pacific Region and the World,” December 12, 2015,

2. United States Department of State, “Inaugural US-India-Japan Trilateral Ministerial Dialogue,” September 2015,

3. US Pacific Command, “US, Indian, Japanese Maritime Forces to Participate in Malabar 2016,” June 2016,

4. Richard D. Marshall Jr., “The String of Pearls: Chinese Maritime Presence in the Indian Ocean and Its Effect on Indian Naval Doctrine,” US Naval Post-Graduate School, 2012,

5. Ash Carter, “The Rebalance and Asia-Pacific Security: Building a Principled Security Network,” Foreign Affairs, November/December 2016,

6. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, “Japan-China Summit,” September 2016,

7. Abe Shinzo, “Confluence of the Two Seas: Speech to the Parliament of India,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, August 2007,

8. Abe Shinzo, “Asia’s Democratic Security Diamond,” Project Syndicate, December 2012,

9. Aso Taro, “Arc of Freedom and Prosperity: Japan’s Expanding Diplomatic Horizons,” Japan Institute of International Affairs (Speech), November 30, 2006,

10. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, “Visit to Japan by H.E. Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India: August 30-September 4, 2014,” September 1, 2014,

11. Prime Minister of Japan, “Prime Minister’s Visit to India,” January 25, 2014,

12. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan “Japan-India Joint Statement,” November 2016,

13. Ibid.

14. Ibid.

15. Ash Carter, “The Rebalance and Asia-Pacific Security: Building a Principled Security Network,” Foreign Affairs, November/December 2016.

16. Prime Minister of Japan and Cabinet Office, “National Security Strategy of Japan,” December 2013,

17. Times of India, “PM Modi Calls Trump to Congratulate him on his win,” November 9, 2016,

18. The White House, “Highlights of President Obama’s Visit to India,” January 2015,

19. Office of Prime Minister of Pakistan, “PM Telephones President-Elect of USA,” November 30, 2016,

20. Joshua Berlinger, “Donald Trump Reportedly Praises “Terrific” Pakistani PM,” CNN, December 3, 2016,

21. Times of India, “India takes tongue-in-cheek dig at Pakistan claims over Donald Trump call,” December 1, 2016,